30 perfect TV punchlines (and the stories behind them)
Since 1990, the joke has been on us — or at least on our minds. Whether it's in our office hallways (not so much lately) or on Slack (too much lately), we at EW love to exchange favorite lines from our favorite comedies, bartering with each other for bigger laughs. As the magazine's 30th anniversary celebration continues, let's look back at the past three decades through the punchlines that defined them. When EW launched in 1990, sitcoms were on the cusp of a revolution, ushering in an era of comedy that would be more meta, more neurotic, more pop-culture-obsessed, more mocku-mentacular...if that were a word. ('More single-camera-y' doesn't roll off the tongue, either.) To narrow down this list, we had to set some parameters: We looked at half-hour comedies that defined the '90s and beyond (we love you, Cheers and The Golden Girls, but you were '80s trailblazers); no dramedies, sketch comedies, or late-night talk shows; and all of the jokes had to work on the page with little-to-no context. This isn't a list of the 30 funniest lines — that's an argument for another day — but rather 30 (okay, 31, because we had to include both Offices) glorious punchlines that we can't stop talking about, complete with tales from the creators, writers, and stars who brought these laughs to life.
Sex and the City
Great punchlines are "divinely inspired when they're right," says exec producer Michael Patrick King. "And they sometimes don't even make sense!" Both things are true about this blistering zinger he wrote for Miranda. (After all, most golf pencils don't have erasers.) The punchline, from the season 1 finale "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," caused a bit of internal debate among HBO execs. "One person thought it was the funniest thing," recalls King, "and another was like, 'I don't get it.'" All doubts were erased once cameras rolled. "The sound guy dropped the boom, he laughed so hard," says King. "He snotted and dropped the boom. That's validation." —Kristen Baldwin
Homer Simpson has said plenty of not S-M-R-T things over the last three decades. ("Ohhh! I have three kids and no money? Why can't I have no kids and three money?") On the other hand, he also has delivered statements of surprising depth. This loopy thinker from season 8's "Homer Vs. the Eighteenth Amendment" — in which bootlegging Homer offers this episode-capping toast (to the town, to the audience) — checked all the right boxes. "It's simultaneously hilarious and a sad truth while being incredibly relatable to all," says writer-producer Mike Scully. "It's a line that hits so many spots with so few words."
While the show's scribes were wowed by this typically elevated offering from episode-writer John Swartzwelder — "To me, the best Swartzwelder lines work as goofy koans about the human condition," says writer-producer George Meyer — they offered one suggestion to maximize its impact. "What amazed us the most was it was kind of buried in the middle of the script," recalls Scully. "It just speaks volumes about what a funny writer John Schwartzwelder is — even he didn't recognize the brilliance of the line he had written!" Scully and Meyer lobbied to relocate the joke to the end of the script. "It had that reverberating, encompassing quality you look for in a closing line," says Meyer. "A walk-off homer that sends the fans home happy."
The reclusive Swartzwelder politely declined to comment, but Scully can't say enough about the legacy of the line: "Here we are, 32 years into the show and 700 episodes, and when anyone asks, 'What's your favorite Simpsons joke?' it should be a hard choice. But your mind instantly goes to that line. We'd love to say we've beaten it, but we haven't." The bar, like our glasses, remains forever raised. —Dan Snierson
Will & Grace
It was a momentous occasion at the turn of the millenium as Will and Jack (with Debra Messing's Grace wedged between them on the couch) settled in to watch the first-ever primetime network kiss between two gay men on the fictional sitcom Along Came You. They expressed their excitement by referencing another stellar cultural landmark event and partaking in the sitcom's spicy syntax games. "That's one of those lines that worked on a meta level because it's self-referential — the show is making the kiss that it's talking about," explains series co-creator David Kohan, "and 'one giant leap for mankind' was [a first-time event]."
Even though Will and Jack didn't get to see that kiss — cameras on the fictional sitcom panned away — Will & Grace viewers still got to witness a big one: Later in the episode, the two guys spontaneously locking lips outside the Today show, rectifying the censorship while appeasing and pleasing a skittish Peacock. "We were having issues with the network," says co-creator Max Mutchnick, "and this was how we got away with it." —Gerrad Hall
How I Met Your Mother
Creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays still haven't fully gotten over how Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writers of the season 1 episode "Sweet Taste of Liberty," were the ones to craft this deeply layered demand. After Barney's (Neil Patrick Harris) "Wait for it!" catchphrase was established in the series premiere, the showrunners were wary about giving him another to constantly repeat. But they just couldn't resist when Lord struck comedy gold creating what would become Barney's series-long signature catchphrase "legendary"— first heard (and repeated 12 times!) in this episode.
In this instance, Lord combined both catchphrases (to make it even more awesome, natch), and then Miller couldn't resist his love of lactose-intolerant jokes. "When I saw that Phil had written 'legend—wait for it—'dary,' I just thought, 'dary' is sitting out there all alone on an island," Miller explains in how he came to milk this joke. "So I was like, 'Here we go!'" "What is this preoccupation with lactose, Chris?" Lord asks. Answers Miller: "Well, listen, some of us, it makes us a little gassy, I'm not saying who. This is a classy publication." But Thomas and Bays literally got the last laugh; they added "the second half of that word is … " to make the gag even longer. "This was episode 3 and this was already an incredibly long, clunky, intricate joke on purpose," Thomas says. "It's this labyrinth of a sentence. That was our twist on it — make it tortured right away." Adds Bays: "It really should have been the season 7 version of the sentence."
At the end of season 1, the men responsible for HIMYM's most memorable line departed the series and later became Oscar-winning, box-office-crushing filmmakers. "Sadly, Chris and Phil's career has been a long, downward spiral since that moment," deadpans Thomas. "They've really done nothing else since leaving How I Met Your Mother. God bless Chris and Phil." —Sydney Bucksbaum
Dear White People
In the first season finale of Netflix's strikingly fresh adaptation of Justin Simien's 2014 film, Samantha is at a serious low, so she asks BFF Joelle to make her laugh. A quip about the Canadian rapper and former child star does the job. "Every episode goes through a crucible before it's shot and even though I wrote this one, this joke belongs to one Jack Moore, now an EP, who pitched it during one of our regular punch up sessions," recalls Simien. "Joelle and Sam love to dissect pop culture with the same profundity they dissect systemic racism, both as a form of self-care and to cheer each other up." The original joke sounded too made-for-TV, and Simien thought it needed some specificity: "This was a time when Jack's obsession with Degrassi and the room's obsession with Drake in general really came in handy!" —Sarah Rodman
"We were on a break!" may be the most famous line in the Ross/Rachel saga, but it was Ms. Green who ultimately had the best burn. This hollow-point bullet of emasculation — which Rachel fired at Ross during their third breakup in the season 4 episode "The One With the Jellyfish" — began with exec producer Greg Malins. "It was the only time I'd ever written down my [joke] before I pitched," he says. "I remember thinking, 'If I don't pitch this exactly right, it's not gonna get in.'" Other writers jumped in, and exec producer Adam Chase added the "it IS a big deal" kicker. "On Friends, it was so wildly collaborative," says Chase, adding that the writers didn't hold back during the brainstorm: "I remember yelling at each other in the room as the characters." —K.B.
What does it mean to be Black? It's a question creator Kenya Barris has been deconstructing since the show's pilot, when Dre (Anthony Anderson) teased his wife, Dr. Rainbow Johnson, about her "omni-colored complexion" — and she delivered this character-defining clapback. "It establishes the relationship between Dre and Bow, and also sets up what black-ish is going to be exploring," says Ross.
The original punchline pointed to Bow's hair and fiscal responsibility, but the latter part "was too cumbersome, and the joke wasn't landing," she adds. (A bit in which Dre tricks Bow into admitting she hadn't seen Roots was also excised.) The on-set rewrite sent a clear message. "'You can joke, Dre, but I'm still getting up every day and having to do my hair and having trouble slipping on jeans,'" says Barris. "It speaks to two things that have challenged us, fetishized us, ostracized us. And it speaks to them with a sense of pride." —Marcus Jones
Armed with his usual casual fascism, Eric Cartman dropped this succinct summation of his fourth- grade authoritarian will while running a business exploiting drug- addicted children in a season 15 episode that spoofed college sports programs. The line, like almost all of co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's work on South Park, was created at the last minute; the duo make episodes from start to finish mere days before they air on Comedy Central. Parker doesn't recall any specific inspiration for the joke ("Cartman just speaks through me") and doesn't even think that it's even one of the show's funniest lines, (But as he notes, "you could never print those" anyway.) Parker points out that the nine-year-old joke is, worrisomely enough. more topical than ever. "That particular line applies to so many things these days," he says. "The president could have said that." —James Hibberd
As the showrunner of TGS with Tracy Jordan, Liz Lemon knew how to deliver a perfectly timed quip. But no one-liner better captured Tina Fey's anxious, workaholic showrunner and her constant struggle between fun and fun-policing. In the season 4 episode "Khonani," Liz decides to host a non-optional, pre-wedding work bash for Cerie (Katrina Bowden), after learning that her staff has been routinely excluding her from their weekly hangouts. It goes… about as well as you'd expect. (Although for the record, that's one party we'd be honored to be forced to attend.) —Devan Coggan
The search for Seinfeld's punchline par excellence was so hard, we almost gave up. But then we tried on Jerry's dressing-down of dressed-down George in season 4's "The Pilot" one more time. "My friend Bob Shaw used to walk around in sweatpants all the time, and I thought it would be funny to give that to a character on the show," explains co-creator/episode writer Larry David, who collaborated with star/co-creator Seinfeld on the joke (with Seinfeld adding the "I give up!" line).
As you might imagine, David maintains some strong opinions on that sartorial choice to this day. "They're wonderful in the house. You can't wear them outside," he notes. "They generally lack pockets, which is awful. And you don't think about the elastic on your ankles that much when you're in the house, but you're out of the house, you're aware of it, you're aware of the string. The string constantly needs to be retied. It's just terrible — Jerry's right: 'I give up.' Because that is just a bad look. Things can't be going well in a person's if they're wearing sweatpants outside their house." —D.S.
Rick and Morty
This local-news banter gone very wrong serves as a Rorschach test of the viewer's assumptions. "Anybody could misinterpret that joke in either direction," says co-creator Dan Harmon, whose sci-fi animated comedy often manages to defy gravity as it hovers over sensitive subjects. "The whole objective from a comedic perspective is to make everybody laugh — hopefully at themselves — without watering it down, and not weaponize the humor."
Then Harmon breaks down the joke and, like in his comedy, turns it around and peer at it from a few different points of view. "The joke in this case is that it is the pretty people on TV relaying what's happening in the world — the kind of Greek chorus of the tragedy that's going on — the inside of their heads is an unreliable narrator," he says. "Or it's the most reliable narrator of all, if the story is that we're all losing our minds. Even though they have to sit next to each other at work, they're capable of having these incredibly polarizing backstories going in their heads that are totally unresolved and they're smiling through their jobs." —J.H.
This winky wordplay — Happy Endings' sweet spot — may be the most mathematically absurd joke on the list. Just as impressive, it was crafted by rookie staffers. Writer-producer Matthew Libman, who ran one of the writers' rooms with his brother Daniel, says their team's "anything goes" policy led to this goofy run-on line. "It was toward the end of season 2, we were running on fumes, and really just so punchy," says Libman. "Just truly insane, at this point. The cool thing about the joke room, it operated as a unit for so long and the five of us knew each other so well, you could do something that a lot of rooms can't — because you're either nervous or they frown on it — but you could pitch a notion. You could just be like, 'I don't have it, but what if it was a name combination?'"
As he remembers, one scribe simply pitched the "Mary Tyler Moore Tyler Moore" rhythm and others jacked it up to the Max — after all, what is the underachiever's brain if not a carnival funhouse? The line killed when Libman's room performed it for the senior writers. "That one beat out whatever else there was," he recalls. "If it can make a bunch of experienced comedy veterans laugh at 2 in the morning, it's a good joke." —Rachel Yang
Parks and Recreation
In the season 3 classic "Flu Season," the Parks and Rec writers wanted to set up a plot in which original social distancer Ron Swanson helps Andy (Chris Pratt) to bond with future-wife April (Aubrey Plaza). The macho misdirect was this explicit declaration of Ron's hands-off policy, as it extended to interpersonal affairs. "Norm [Hiscock, who wrote the episode] concocted a very delightful backstory — Ron worked with a guy for years and never learned his name — which I thought was so funny," recalls co-creator Mike Schur. "That's the thing Ron's proud of." Schur then added that quasi-paradoxical topper. "It's a good collection of words and plays on a phrase people have heard," he says. "But it is a little playful for Ron. He's being wry when he says that, and he's not often very wry. Maybe it's a little humanizing that he has a little impish streak in him where he engages in wordplay."
In Offerman's mouth, the joke became legendary. "Nick pauses the exact right amount of time before saying, 'We still never talk sometimes,'" says Schur. "The corner of his mouth turns up by, like, four degrees into a tiny smile. He has such command over his face. He's his own marionette — and he operates himself perfectly at all times." —D.S.
The Larry Sanders Show
The Larry Sanders Show derived much of its humor from the sarcastic, self-deprecating personality of its title character, which gives this season 1 highlight a unique thrust when Larry decides to try becoming more "likable" so he can do better in audience opinion polls against rivals like Arsenio Hall. But after myriad attempts to make Larry more pleasant, the host admits the truth with this neuroses-in-neon punchline that explains the arc of the entire episode (and much of the series): He's never going to like himself. "It's a good lesson about the TV business and maybe every business: You do all this stuff and then it moves the needle maybe one degree, and you are who you are," says writer-producer Paul Simms. "Both Larry and Gary were people who hung on to that self-critical impulse because they felt like it gave them the edge that they needed."
One possible reason for Larry's ongoing insecurity is the punchline's contrast with Larry King, then a massive media figure. "At the time that line was written, Larry King was the most famous Larry in America," Simms says. "He was on CNN every night, he had his USA Today column. Larry probably wanted the show to be named Larry but Artie would have said, 'Well, Larry King owns the name.' So it had to be The Larry Sanders Show." —Christian Holub
In the police comedy's emotionally charged season 5 finale, Amy gave fellow detective Jake a bomb wedding gift during their nuptials. Winking at Jake's derriere-focused compliment from earlier in the episode — a callback to his proposal — Amy finished off her vows with that unexpected punchline, reducing Jake to tears. "As soon as Amy said, 'Do not say ["Ya butt is da bomb"] in your vows' in the first act, the first impulse was, 'That should be a part of Jake's vows,'" recalls exec producer/episode co-writer Luke Del Tredici.
But as the writers struggled to juggle that joke with another season 5 callback (Jake wanted his vows to involve, yes, an Addams Family rap), one writer — possibly Luke; memories are fuzzy — suggested that it should be Amy who utters that line of levity. Still, the quip needed another gear, which led to that mic-dropping twist. "The thing Jake found touching was not only that Amy was doing his joke," says Del Tredici, "but she had cranked it up a little bit."
Fumero sees that line as a crowning moment in their opposites-attract courtship. "They bring out the best in each other," she notes. "Her topping his joke is also a bit of a nod to their earlier relationship when they were so competitive and always trying to best each other." In addition, the silly knock-out blow showed Amy's, well, maturation. "Season 1 Amy would never have made a joke in the middle of her wedding," Fumero says. "To see her arrive at that moment and just lean into it and make that joke in the middle of their ceremony is a testament to that character's growth." There may have been no survivors that day, but the laughs live on. —D.S.
An impeccable alchemy of irony and darkness yielded this very good bad-dad joke. On one side, there's the disaffected filmmaker Abed, who is processing the sadness of being alienated from his father via a documentary for school, and then there's the more neurotypical Jeff, who remains as emotionally oblivious as ever. "For smart people," says creator Dan Harmon, "it gives them a comedic piece of medicine because it gives them permission to feel deeper pain and compartmentalization."
Cracked in the community college-set comedy's third-ever episode, the line gave Pudi a deeper understanding of Abed, as well as his relationship with Jeff and his father. "This was so early on in our show where I feel like I was still learning about Abed's world, and I wasn't necessarily sure how to play him. I just remember being a little stressed out about it because I wasn't sure tonally how it was going to work," says the actor, who deftly delivers the punchline off-screen from behind Abed's handheld camera with rat-a-tat precision. "There were a few takes where I [pointed the camera] at Jeff while saying it, and there were a few takes where I was looking into the camera. I think the [documentary framing] helped a lot because then it became a little bit more about capturing the perfect shot and applying that distance between the two characters."
Abed's search for truth through the camera mirrors Pudi's own. "That to me was very important — to make sure that the joke was delivered, but at the same time, it was coming from a very honest place where you realized the troubled relationship Abed had with his father," he says. Ultimately, Pudi believes that the exchange earns top marks because it's as economical as it is relatable. "I had a guttural laugh at that line because it touched on a lot of things—I never had a great relationship with my own father," he shares. "That was one of those amazing simple jokes that did so much with so little…Those jokes always to me were just so wonderful to play because the jokes not only informed his character, but also got a laugh. That was really beautiful." —Chancellor Agard
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Everything you need to know about the former child musician is expressed in this absurd declaration of daddy issues. The line would've been funny if it had ended with "Serena Williams' father" because of the irony, but the wordy and out-of-place John Hughes reference makes it sing — and makes the twisted museum sound like something we'd definitely want to "Twitter or Blogspot" about. — C.A.
This consumerist gem-turned-priceless meme sprang from Fry's breathless exuberance over an eyePhone, which defeated the clerk's attempt to disclose its many downsides. "This joke is about Apple fanatics, but it also says something deeper about humans in very, very few words," says showrunner David X. Cohen. "We want what we want for emotional reasons, not logical reasons. If facts get in the way, we absolutely do not want to hear them."
The show's writers can't recall which one of them actually penned the line (suspects include Cohen and Patric M. Verrone, who wrote the episode), but Cohen does remember that he "immediately predicted it would be quoted a lot. That's a reaction I have rarely — if ever — had." Verrone recalls taking the line for an ill-fated spin in the real world shortly after the season 6 episode aired. "I was in an Apple store and buying something and the salesman tried to upsell me," he says. "I said something like, 'Are you familiar with the phrase, 'Shut up and take my money?' And I think he wasn't. Unlike his character in the show, he was doing his job properly, but like the character on the show, I was being rude and trying to keep him from that."
Fry's overly aggressive enthusiasm may have been discourteous, but it is universally relatable, notes Verrone. "It's human nature to express a form of gratitude through anger and recrimination," he says with a laugh. "'Don't get in the way of my technological satisfaction!' I think that's why it became such an internet meme that we all feel. 'Take my money,' is the irrelevant part of it — 'Just shut up and gratify me!'" —D.S.
Patsy Stone calls herself an "ex–Bond Girl" (she wasn't, unless you count Bond-inspired adult films like The Man with Thunder Balls), but when it comes to hurling masterful insults, she definitely has a license to kill. Patsy was unfailingly loyal to her best friend Eddy (AbFab creator/writer Jennifer Saunders), and nothing got her vitriol flowing more than someone she viewed as a rival for Eddie's attention — primarily her prim and sensible daughter, Saffy (Julia Sawalha). This barb, which appeared in the aptly-named season 2 episode "New Best Friend," was aimed at someone else: Eddy's old friend Bettina (Miranda Richardson), also known as the "Queen of Minimalism." By the end of the half-hour, though, Eddy managed do irreparable damage to her bond with Bettina, which was good news for Patsy… and the furniture. —K.B.
One Day at a Time
When Lydia needed some "Cuban guilt" to use against her kids Penelope (Justina Machado) and Tito (Danny Pino), exec producer Gloria Calderón Kellett looked no further than her own journey to motherhood. "I had my first child, I was in labor for 20 hours, which caused my lady parts to stretch out," she explains helpfully. The result? A trickle of pee every time Calderón Kellett coughs — and Lydia's precision-guided missile of passive-aggression. Moreno admits that it was hard for her to keep a straight face during this scene: "The moment I read it out loud at the table reading, the entire cast exploded with laughter, as did I. From then on, every time I said the line I broke up to the point of tears. The line is SO true to real-life experience and I'm still laughing. Brilliant!" —Rosy Cordero
What better way to introduce viewers to the verbal pratfalls of self-proclaimed "cool dad" Phil Dunphy than a line where he artlessly mangles the text abbreviation WTF as "Why the face?" But his quintessential bit wasn't penned by series creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, who wrote that first episode. "A very, very funny actor came in to read for the part, but he ad-libbed a change to the line," shares Lloyd.
No, it wasn't Burrell — who changed "That's my thing to "That's my thang" and ultimately Philled the role — but rather... Alan Tudyk. The Firefly alum had scored an audition for the part of Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), but he was more interested in playing Phil. "I got the sense that they wrote that for Ty," he says, "but they were generous enough to let me audition." Fun, awkward fact: After casting Burrell, Lloyd called Tudyk to ask for permission to use his improvisation, which was graciously granted. "Every funny part of this speech was contributed by people other than the people who were given credit for this script," quips Lloyd.
Eleven years later, Tudyk is still flattered that Lloyd and Levitan chose his line. "As an actor, there's not a lot of affirmation surrounding jobs you don't get," says Tudyk, "so this is a standout." How did he conjure up that phrase? "I share that with the character of Phil," he answers. "I don't know what any of those things mean, so as far as I'm concerned, WTF could be 'Why the face?'" —Lacey Vorrasi-Banis
Vice President-turned-President Selina Meyer delivered plenty of withering insults during her administration. (And at her administration, especially Jonah.) But this season 1 classic proudly blends profanity and pastry. That's part of the reason why Louis-Dreyfus proclaims it her favorite: "It's incredibly vulgar, it's incredibly literal, and it's very powerfully female," she says.
Writer-producer Simon Blackwell penned the first sentence (which echoes Malcolm Tucker's "marzipan dildo" crack from The Thick of It, Veep creator Armando Iannucci's original British series). During rehearsal, the always-workshopping Veep team loved the line so much that they decided to knead the metaphor to greater perfection. "It was Julia who said, 'I'm sure there's more,'" recalls Iannucci. "[She said], 'It doesn't do the job,' and somebody else pitched in: 'It makes a f---ing mess.' We all laughed, and then we broke for coffee and croissants." Louis-Dreyfus adds, "It's such a flaky pastry! I really thought clarifying it and gilding the lily, shall we say, might help the imagery even more." Bless this mess. —D.C.
In the grand pantheon of Max/Kyle snipes that made this family-of-friends series zing, this Max comeback is the chef's kiss of deep cuts. "My husband and I are Max and Kyle," says creator Yvette Lee Bowser with a laugh, noting that her husband even has the rich, deep vocal timbre of his TV alter ego. "The character and the relationships were designed after the two of us. It was always a battle of wits and emotions. And we're still at it 20 years later. We've evolved just as Max and Kyle did in the series."
Bowser recalls feeling the burn in the writers' room when this exchange was crafted. "One of the really wonderful things about television writing is that it is such a wonderful collaborative experience," she says. During the previous season the show had done a well-received Mother's Day episode. "It felt so good to us that we thought we have to do Mother's Day again, but this time let's send the mothers away and explore the grandmother element of it," says Bowser. "But we wanted to have the story where Kyle was researching his ancestry and as soon as he got to his origin story, of course Max has to go in. It started with 'That should be easy, all test tubes are the same.'"
The writers knew they wanted to have Kyle lay claim to a family invention; they settled on the straw because in the pre-Google '90s, there was no easily detectable inventor. Bowser believes it was either Roger Schulman or Warren Hutcherson who hit paydirt with the perfectly fussy "drinking dowel" bit and then Bowser unveiled the wowser: "I am famously known for those next punch lines. You try to go high, Max is going to cut you low." —S.R.
"Regarding favorite jokes," begins creator Mitch Hurwitz, "I feel a little like the Bluth matriarch in claiming 'I love all my children equally' before immediately being revealed as saying 'I never cared for Gob.' Actually, one of my favorites is 'I never cared for Gob,' but that was less written than it was 'recalled' from something said by the actual woman Lucille was modeled on. But I don't want to use any real names, so let's just call her 'the real Lucille' and that should suffice, particularly because it actually is her name."
Indeed, choosing an infallible dagger from the scolding, withholding Bluth matriarch is harder than figuring out Gene Parmesan's next undercover outfit. But we opted to toast the woman who's colder than the ice in her vodka for that deceptively deep double-shot in what should be a time of concern for hospitalized son, Gob (Will Arnett). "[Exec producer] Jim Vallely's pitch not only sums up Lucille but points out something incredibly obvious I've never heard anyone articulate: There are no bars in hospitals," says Hurwitz. "Upon closer examination, it's not obvious why. Are we worried the patients will drink? They have far more effective narcotics at their disposal. The doctors? They're the ones who give out the drugs. Who are we worried about exactly?"
Vallely explains that Lucille's comeback to Michael's come-back-to-Earth comment came from the creator himself ("That's a Hurwitz if I ever heard one"), and that the seeds for the joke were planted by his own mother, Ruth, who volunteered in a hospital. "She would just pop out these absurd, crazy things," he notes. "I think she had said to me, 'I have all of these people who are dying up here — they all could really use a stiff drink.' And we probably talked about, 'Why aren't there bars in hospitals?'" Vallely salutes Walter's tough-love, matter-of-fact delivery. "She does no comedy spin on it at all," he observes. "It's a hardcore fact that she knows. It's perfect. Ninety-nine percent of actors go, "This is why people hate hospitals!!!" She does it a little lighter."
And then comes a touch of darkness as Lucille exits the conversation — and GOB's room — with a heartless cackle. "She realizes she's made a joke," Vallely says. "The juxtaposition of a mother leaving her sick son in the hospital, laughing hysterically — you couldn't have made it up. That's just the whipped cream and the cherry on the sundae." Which Lucille wouldn't want you to eat. After all: "You want your belt to buckle, not your chair." —D.S.
The Bernie Mac Show
When his adorably oddball nephew Jordan (Jeremy Suarez) develops an obsession with magic, Bernie (Bernie Mac) is beyond befuddled. "Any time the kids have any kind of interest that's going to be mildly inconvenient for Bernie, he just shuts it down," explains exec producer Steve Tompkins, who penned this season 2 standout episode, "Magic Jordan." In the original script, Bernie went on to say, "I tell ya, America, good parenting is hard" — but then producers booked Penn & Teller as guest stars, so the second line was dropped as Bernie turned to the celebrity magicians for advice. "We were always keeping an eye out for guest stars that we could have in what we called the confessional, which is when Bernie would talk to America directly in his den," explains Tompkins. "We didn't have those people at the time we wrote the script."
Though the final joke gets right to the heart of fictional Bernie's "selfishness and narcissism," Tompkins admits he has one regret: "Bernie wouldn't say 'squash'! I look at it now and it hurts my ear," he says with a laugh. "But it's a funny word. And if you know comedy, you end on the funny word." —K.B.
The Office (U.K.)
Based on his own experiences attending training workshops, Ricky Gervais believes that David Brent's failed (and wildly inappropriate) attempt at being a motivational guru is "a microcosm of what the character and show was about." And such a big gig for the fame-seeking office manager would be the ultimate validation: "Not only was he already on telly, but now he was being shown to be a real entertainer and philosopher," he says. "This should be his best day ever — and of course he wasn't equipped for the job." The writer-director-star worked with a "bare-bones" script and riffed the rest, including his killer ad-libbed needle hand gesture as Brent says "put down."
The true "funny shot," in Gervais' opinion, is the befuddled man in the audience that the camera pans in on during the rambling talk. "Just the normal person not understanding what's going on," he says with a laugh. "When someone is embarrassing themselves, there's nothing like a fake documentary to make the audience squirm." As for the yoga kicker? "I like when people try to give reasons for karma and kindness, and it all comes back to themselves."
And, for Gervais, it all comes back to his belief that "we've all got a bit of Brent in us. We all want to be loved, we all say stupid things, and we all want people to think we're smart and kind." —Derek Lawrence
The Office (U.S.)
After a tepid response to season 1, the Office team set out to make Michael "more pathetic and less jerky," says Gene Stupnitsky, who co-wrote season 2's "The Fight" with Lee Eisenberg. Working on their first episode of the NBC workplace sitcom, the writing partners feared that they were more likely to be fired than to come up with a line deemed worthy of a mug, considering showrunner Greg Daniels was out with pneumonia and the rest of the writers were off working on their own installments. "If you had normally gone off with 20 pages of notes, we went off with, like, a page of notes," recalls Eisenberg. "It was terrifying."
Stuck on their own, the duo sought to elicit sympathy for Michael (and maybe themselves) with the Dunder Mifflin boss' explanation of his misguided management style. Says Eisenberg: "He's emotionally greedy and intellectually unsophisticated." The joke thrives on the use of "Easy" and Carell's "confident" delivery, Stupnitsky believes: "There's an assumed cleverness, like he found a loophole."
Speaking of, did the unseen documentarian even ask Michael the question he answered? "In my mind, he just brought it up, like it was something he wanted to establish," shares Eisenberg. "He thinks he's controlling the narrative of the show." —D.L.
It took Archer creator Adam Reed a few tries to find Sterling Archer's voice. If your main character is just a dumb jock spy jerk all the time, how are you going to have enough comedy fuel to power multiple seasons of hilarious hijinks on your spry spy comedy? So Reed infused his own background as an English nerd into the character, and it gave Archer a unique personality blend of testosterone-fueled bravado and literary condescension. Reed identifies this line, from the show's second episode, as "the first 'secret English major' joke."
"There were a bunch of obscure English major jokes that people would either say, 'This isn't funny' and I would explain why it was funny to English majors and they would let it slide, or they wouldn't notice that it was a joke," Reed said. "There are Melville references, and there's one shoot-out in space where Archer goes on this big rant about Animal Farm. All the English-major stuff that I spent four years buried in, where my whole life revolved around analyzing the written word and writing papers — I think writing Archer scripts late into the night dredged up things I hadn't thought of in forever."
Of course, as anyone who has studied English knows, rants about literature aren't always very amusing to listen to. Thankfully, Archer often makes mistakes or misremembers things even as he makes references with the utmost confidence. The well-reported fact that Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" lyrics aren't actually examples of irony helps push this punchline to the next level. "I've put a lot of my own quirks on Archer," says Reed, "and one of them is not only having useless knowledge like that, but also a very faulty grasp of it." —C.H.
Fresh Off the Boat
In Nahnatchka Khan's pilot about a Taiwanese-American family, Eddie Huang has one mission: persuade his uncompromising mother, Jessica, to buy him "white people lunch," a.k.a. Lunchables. But nothing can prepare her for the journey "into the unknown" that is Food 4 All!!!! "Initially, there was confusion to why this was an act break, like what the drama was," recalls Khan. "I remember having to really get in there and sell, like, 'It's glowing in the night like an alien spaceship.' It's so foreign to her — it's almost like they're going into battle. Constance played it perfectly, the anxiety and seriousness; it's not a joke to her."
While it wasn't a joke to Jessica, the memorable line still landed, while also setting the table for FOTB's six seasons of sharp race-related humor. "In our focus groups, we got feedback that some white people felt persecuted because there were a lot of jokes at their expense," shares Khan. "There was a discussion: 'Should we take this joke out? Is it too much?' Ultimately we were like, 'Let it ride. If we get more chances, great, but if not, we're going to be proud of the pilot — even if no one gets to see it.'" —D.L.
It was a joke two episodes in the making. Season 2's "Adventures in Paradise: Part 1" was all about getting Frasier to meet the right woman in Madeline (JoBeth Williams). And part 2 was supposed to be his chance to romance her by taking her to Bora Bora. Little did he know that his ex and her new beau were in the hut next door. "The minute that Frasier and Lilith are together, this high-level sarcasm starts flying," says David Isaacs, who co-wrote the episode with Ken Levine. Levine adds, "We were trying to think of, realistically, who would Lilith go out with? He had to have some science background and I don't know exactly why we came up with seismologist, maybe to do that joke. But that was one of those jokes that, from day one, just stayed in." Like most of Frasier's small talk with Lilith, this bon mot carries sinister subtext. "The two rarely would just insult each other," says Levine. "The insults were usually disguised in passive- aggressive banter." —Samantha Highfill
Curb Your Enthusiasm
As the creator and star of HBO's curmudgeon-com, Larry David truly did pump up the grump. In this masterpiece of misery from the season 7 premiere, when houseguest Auntie Rae (Ellia English) tells Larry that she heard from a neighbor about another break-in in the area, David indeed expresses concern… that she was talking to the neighbors. "If there were a 10 Commandments of Larry, No. 1 is, 'Thou shalt not bother me,'" observes showrunner Jeff Schaffer. "Nothing is more valuable than your own time and freedom." Adds David: "Yet we waste so much of it."
Curb involves copious improvisations from a detailed outline, and in this case, the writers huddled with David between takes to refine his alter ego's surprising stance. "You can always get more stuff, but you can never get back the time you spent talking to your elderly neighbor about her cat," notes exec producer Jeff Schaffer. "We were laughing about that, and then Larry distilled the perfect attitude down to the perfect language." Explains David: "It's just something that seems to make sense once you examine it. It's such an unexpected thing to say." And it shines new comedic light on the darkness of having neighbors. "They're there all the time, there's no getting away from them," laments David. "Then you're stuck with stop-and-chats every day." (For the record, "I don't know him well enough for a stop-and-chat" also could've made this list.) —D.S.